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International Scottish Icon | Eilean Donan Castle

23 September 2021

To those who know of Eilean Donan Castle it is the most iconic of Scottish castles. Run by the Conchra Trust, it is preserved and made available to visitors, and the Trustees have developed it into a thriving visitor centre.

Like the wider tourism sector, it has been faced with huge challenges. David Win, General Manager, talks to Bruce Stevenson’s Mark Richards to explain.

As Scotland’s hospitality sector started reopening in May, how important do you feel this coming tourist season is for the industry as a whole?

The importance of this season to Scotland’s Tourism and Hospitality operators simply cannot be understated, and sadly I’m struggling to see how many established operators will be able to generate sufficient revenues and profits to see them through another long hard winter.

The impact of Covid-19 has completely decimated the industry and has left us facing a long, arduous route to recovery. Without a successful summer period, the number of businesses that go to the wall will continue to rise, further weakening what was once a hugely successful sector. Personally speaking, I fear most for rural economies where the working population is disproportionately reliant on employment within the sectors, and alternative opportunities are in short supply.

 

-Aerial view of Eilean Donan Castle

 

It was reported that in the three months you were open in 2020, you had over 50,000 visitors with zero outbreaks recorded by your team or through the Test and Protect system. How much of a logistical challenge was this for you?

In my 35 years of management experience, I can categorically state that 2020 was the single most challenging year of my entire career to date. The development of our Covid-19 protocols was a gargantuan task for the management team. Our operation consists of heritage services, food & beverage operations, retail gift shop, holiday accommodation, self-catering apartments, wedding services, toilets and car parks. As such, the task of completing comprehensive risk assessments for every touchpoint, and the subsequent development of corresponding protocols took months of incredibly detailed work from a small team of eight very determined managers.

These protocols have been constantly reviewed and revised throughout the pandemic, to keep our staff, their families, the local community and our visitors safe.

 

Throughout the world, Eilean Donan is the one place people generally call to mind when they think of Scotland. What activities do you undertake to stay connected with your international audience?

Technology is King! This is my 16th season at Eilean Donan, and the global development in digital resources since 2006 has utterly transformed how we market ourselves internationally. We very quickly jumped on the social media bandwagon when it first appeared. We initially viewed it as a potentially useful wee experiment! Little did we know how that experiment would change all of our lives. 

Today, across our many channels, we have an active audience of over 400,000 individuals. Monthly views of our digital content now number in the millions, ably supplemented with two live-streaming webcams which help reach every corner of the world. Many individual posts have reached over 10 million people, a reach more traditional marketing techniques would have struggled to ever achieve without huge financial outlay.

 

 

As we see major Scottish events being postponed yet again, and expected low numbers for international tourism, do you foresee Scottish Highlands staycations increasing?

Hopefully yes, although uncertainty regarding infection levels,regional lockdowns, coupled with people’s natural anxiety about returning to normality is proving to be something of a barrier. As Governments have brought greater clarity to the question of the resumption of international travel, there has been a recent increase in accommodation bookings.
On a more positive note, early signs do indicate an uplift in business through the autumn months, which might be supported by a return of international visitors.

 

As an A-listed historical building, what do you feel are the most important changes in modern times to enhance and protect the Castle’s heritage?

The primary role of the Trust is to protect and preserve the Castle for future generations, whilst educating our visitors about the clan system and Scottish history. In many ways, I often feel the Eilean Donan team and I are merely temporary custodians of the old girl, with the key responsibility to ensure her welfare for centuries to come. Caring for the very fabric of such a building is an expensive process, and requires sound commercial foundations to enable its restoration, preservation and ongoing development. In modern times we have been able to successfully balance the heritage needs, the commercial needs, and the visitor needs in equal measure, hopefully without diluting the essence of the place.

 

How much do you value the protection insurance offers the Castle and the work of the Trust in safeguarding it for the future?

The insurance requirements for a complex business such as ours are multi-layered, requiring a very detailed understanding of every facet of the different operations. Coupled with the fact that the whole operation has developed considerably in the last 15 years, our insurance needs continue to evolve with every year that passes. During that period, our revenues have increased five-fold, generated by significant increases in visitor numbers, and the launch of new visitor services. As such, the annual reviews conducted by Bruce Stevenson, of all the various changes in our business, offers great peace of mind.

 

-Winter image of Eilean Donan castle from the waterside

 

Numerous celebrities and famous people have been pictured visiting Eilean Donan. Who has been the most memorable visitor for you, and why?

A memorable event for me personally occurred about 14 years ago. One morning, one of the biggest campervans I’d ever set eyes upon pulled into the bus lanes, blocking not just one but two lanes because of its sheer width. Grumpily marching out of the office to deliver my “please move spiel” I knocked firmly on the side door, perhaps not feeling my most hospitable best. Eventually, the door opened to a cheerful face saying “You’re going to ask me to move aren’t you?” Stood in front of me was none other than the former Formula 1 World Champion, Nigel Mansell, one of my F1 heroes! Now, when you’re faced with a celebrity you’ve admired for many years, it’s hard to remain grumpy, so I just had to laugh and swallow my mood! Turns out he could not have been a nicer visitor to Eilean Donan’s walls.

 

What plans are you most excited about bringing to Eilean Donan Castle in the near future?

We are always looking at new opportunities to further develop our Sustainable Tourism credentials. We’re currently exploring the possibility of developing our large-scale garden to grow fruit, vegetables and salads to supply Eilean Donan’s catering operations. A long-term project that will also create many new employment opportunities within our community, outside of the traditional tourism and hospitality-led roles.

For more information on Eilean Donan Castle visit: www.eileandonancastle.com

 

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Mark Richards, Private Client Director at Bruce Stevenson Insurance Brokers

Mark Richards

Private Clients Director

 

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